JOANNE FISKE PLAYS HER HUNCHES ON A LOT OF BUSINESS DECISIONS.
Byline: Deirdre Mendoza
LOS ANGELES — You can take the New Yorker out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the New Yorker.
Perhaps that explains Joanne Fiske’s knack for weeding through a sea of fledgling lines to find some of the edgiest — perhaps even most directional — resources in the contemporary market. Fiske, who at 21 was already clued in to designers such as Stephen Sprouse and Norma Kamali as a buyer for New York specialty stores, has been transformed into a soft-core Angeleno, with two dogs and a house in the hills to prove it.
The transformation began in 1992, when Fiske gave up her extensive buying career and East Coast address and headed for warmer climes. Since her arrival here, she has succeeded in creating a room that aims to take the guesswork out of buying contemporary sportswear.
She attributes the success of her room to her instincts.
“These are lines that just feel right to me. They can’t just look good off the hanger — they have to look good in stock. It has to be something that makes the customer want to take it to the dressing room,” said Fiske, whose own unconventional style built around one-of-a-kind thrift store finds exemplifies California fashion.
On this hot September day, Fiske is in a black slipdress acquired from a local flea market and a pair of Charles David slides. Her hair is blonde and her skin is unintentionally tan. She sifts through a cobb salad, while offering a parable that sums up her views on how business is conducted on both coasts:
“Someone from New York and someone from L.A. are given the same project to do on Monday morning that’s due on Friday. The New Yorker starts the project on Monday morning, gets really stressed out about it and finishes it on Friday. In L.A., they start the same project Thursday afternoon, finish in two hours and turn it in Friday morning without the stress.”
That’s not a knock but a matter of fact, according to Fiske, who maintains a deep-rooted passion for the Big Apple, while consistently championing up-and-coming West Coast designers.
“I practically live at Barneys when I’m there,” she said about her frequent trips back East. “I bought everything there last time I was in town — I mean everything. But that doesn’t mean I think they do it any better than we do it here.”
Currently, she carries hip young contemporary labels such as Sofia Coppola’s Milk Fed line of sportswear and dresses; Blue Marlin’s team-themed cottons; Anita Ko’s handbags; Trash Bags; New York-based Living Doll’s thermals, velvets and sheers; Beautiful People’s skirts, dresses and cardigan sheers; Juicy Couture’s fashion basics; innerwear by Love Letters and Skimpies; Brighdie’s lingerie; wool knits and organza pieces by Main Dish; jeans by Tag M.; Kari Steph’s knee-length Lurex paisley skirts and assorted velvets, and a line of Seventies-inspired crochets and sweaters by the Parisian line Mellow Yellow.
These resources are sold to an account list of better retailers in the western part of the country.
Fiske takes pride in strong relationships with her accounts, noting that retailers such as Fred Segal, Tracey Ross and longtime friend Diane Merrick buy multiple lines, and “find something new each season.”
Local retailers remarked on her dry, New York wit; no-nonsense approach to business, and her radar for what sells.
“She has a great forward eye,” said Merrick, who has been in the industry for 26 years. “When you’re in the California market, you can really move with the trends. Her lines are on the edge. If I say to her ‘zip-up sweatshirts,’ she’ll say, ‘Yes, they’re coming in two weeks.’ She’ll be on top of things, and that’s the way you make money.”
Wendy Freedman-Borsuk, owner of Polkadots & Moonbeams here, said she buys many of Fiske’s lines, including Main Dish, Skimpies and Juicy Couture, which Fiske has represented since the company’s second year in business.
“I’ve worked with Joanne since she opened because I love her honest style,” she said. “She has great prices, a great sense of style and she won’t push things that she knows won’t sell in my store.”
Retailer Andrea D’Angelo, owner of Trio in Encino, Calif., buys several lines from Fiske, including Juicy Couture. She estimated she spends about $50,000 a year on Juicy Couture alone. She said Fiske helped her when she opened her doors two years ago, and she has shared tips on new resources with Fiske ever since.
Pamela Skaist, owner of Juicy Couture, which expects to do between $2 million and $4 million in sales this year, credits Fiske, along with the company’s New York representative, for doubling business since the firm’s launch three years ago.
“The collection had a very strong philosophy, but it needed someone to put us out there,” said Skaist. “We were with a big rep in L.A. and she [Fiske] was not as well known at that time, but she was the one that was able to get our merchandise to buyers.”
Resources like Juicy Couture are highlighted in a warehouse-style, 1,200-square-foot room that reflects Fiske’s devotion to home furnishings plucked from flea markets, yard sales and trips abroad.
“I don’t even read fashion magazines, I read home furnishing magazines,” said Fiske. “I once carried a sink on my lap on the plane back from Cabo [San Lucas, Mexico]. People thought I was crazy, but I knew it was exactly what I wanted.”
That clear vision has helped Fiske develop the business by sticking to her five-year-plan. Initially housed across the street from its current location, Joanne Fiske Sales, then owned with a partner, operated out of one of the smallest showrooms in the CaliforniaMart.
Fiske quipped, “Driving home, I would see these ladies with a tin cup standing at the freeway entrance hoping for a handout, and I’d think, make it work or be homeless — the showroom or the cup.”
Fortunately, she hit on two trends that put her showroom on the map. The first was a new approach to baby T-shirts, which were extremely strong in 1994. Fiske took on the Juicy line, which was featuring an alternative to the crew neck — the V-neck.
Fiske said she pleaded with buyers to try four pieces and initially was met with blank expressions.
“We taught the retailer that it didn’t have to be that cloned baby T that would get the eye of the customer. V-necks exploded, and suddenly retailers were asking what other colors we had.”
Fiske had the foresight to carry the nail polish legend Hard Candy before the company caught on explosively and went public.
“Everybody thought I was either insane or 12 [years old],” said Fiske. “I spent four months with my feet on the table so people would start to understand what I was talking about. I convinced my accounts to try two colors — just test it. It hit for Christmas 1994, and we carried it exclusively on the West Coast until she went public.”
When asked about plans to keep increasing the business, Fiske expresses her satisfaction with the status quo.
“Sometimes I want to have a supermarket mall of all young people, but mostly I just want to have the trends covered the way I see them. I’m just so happy with the way the room looks right now. There’s something for everybody in here,” she said, taking a dramatic pause before adding with a classic New York lilt, “Who knew?”